The Very Young and the Reckless
I started this blog almost a year ago, motivated just to plant in the world the idea that it would be a good achievement for the human race to be rid of nuclear bombs and power plants by the time the centennial of the nuclear age rolls around. But I’ve come to see that it is impossible to advocate for such an idea without talking about related environmental problems and the dysfunction of so many political and business institutions.
It makes no sense to be pro-nuclear just because coal mining kills people and global warming threatens us all. In the opposite way, how can one be anti-nuclear while ignoring, for example, the horrors of mountain-top-removal coal mining in West Virginia? Elementary schools in the poorest and most polluted parts of this state have not one asthma inhaler in the nurse’s office, but rows of asthma inhalers. One has to be anti-everything that destroys innocent lives for the idea that some people are necessary sacrifices for others’ comfort.
From these diverse environmental and social problems, the one common theme that emerges is that knowledge of the non-life sciences (physics, chemistry, engineering) is always ahead of knowledge of the life sciences. We knew how to split atoms before we could splice genes.
US Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986) is credited with the development of the American nuclear submarine fleet, but he didn’t feel particularly proud of his achievement in his later years. He viewed his work as something that was inevitably necessary in the Cold War era, but in retirement he wished that he could trade in his career success for a world in which atomic energy were not known. In an address to the US Congress he said:
Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet… reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin... Now … we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible... Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years… it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, no one realized that cellular reproduction was impossible on a radioactive planet because no one knew much at all about the molecular code of life.
A review of a few other important developments in the history of science reveals the same pattern: the understanding of non-life sciences is constantly outpacing the knowledge of life sciences.
A Few Milestones in the Industrial Contamination of Life
1556 to 1783:
Silver ore processing at Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia. The Spanish Galleon Trade established the global economy linking all the continents, and it rocked the world currency system with an unprecedented infusion of silver from a single mountain in South America. Indian slaves died in short rotation, not simply from exposure and brutal labor, but by mercury poisoning. Ore was cold-mixed with mercury (“fortuitously” found in large amounts on a nearby mountain) and trodden by the native workers with their bare feet. The mercury vapors were deadly. When the local supply of slaves was exhausted, African slaves were imported.1917-1928:
Radium Girls – A term given to thousands of factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning while painting radioluminescent watch dials. Even though the dangers were understood by the higher-ups, workers were sent to the factory floor without adequate protection. The “girls” (and some boys) fought a ten-year legal battle and established precedents for worker protection from poisoning on the job.
Marie Curie dies of aplastic anemia, brought on by years of radiation exposure.
Manhattan Project. Managers knew the history of the Radium Girls and set about their work with deep trepidation. They feared that the large number of workers needed would lead to health consequences that couldn’t be concealed. They worried about the ethical issues and that the secrecy of the Project would be blown if large numbers of workers got sick. Robert Stone, a medical officer on the Project, wrote in 1943, “The clinical study of the personnel is one vast experiment. Never before has so large a collection of individuals been exposed to so much radiation.”
Human populations were exposed to bomb blasts in acts of war in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nuclear fallout in a bomb test in New Mexico. Some scientists thought the atmosphere might catch on fire, but others thought, naaah, probably not.
Discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Like most discoveries, this was more of an incremental step achieved on the shoulders of previous researchers. For several years biologists had been slowly figuring out the genetic code and the structure of DNA, but it is striking to realize that at the time of the Manhattan Project, scientists knew only that radiation makes people sick but they didn’t know why.
Atmospheric testing of massive hydrogen bombs - the 15 megaton Castle Bravo test in the Bikini Atoll (1954, USA), the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba test in Novaya Zemlya, Arctic Ocean (1961, USSR), and other atmospheric tests by France, the United Kingdom and China until 1976. Gradually, the understanding of genetic effects was sinking in. Leaders everywhere paused, scratched their heads and said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.”
Evidence is published showing that the artificial hormone DES, prescribed over previous decades to pregnant women, could cause deformities and future cancers in their children. Subsequently, other endocrine disruptors (dioxin, pesticides, flame retardants, uranium – for its chemical properties, not just a radioisotope - PCBs, bisphenol A, mercury, selenium…) were found to have the same cross-generational effects. Even when the case couldn’t be nailed shut, there has been a growing consensus of people opting for the precautionary principle, saying, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.”
More recently, there has been a study showing that the effects of endocrine disruptors can be passed on to the third generation.
1997 to present:
Fetal origins or “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis, increasing understanding of effects between environment and genes (epigenetics), and the prenatal origins of cancer and other diseases.
The “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis refers to what happens when a fetus is exposed to deprivation or chemical stress. This seems to set up a person’s metabolism in a particular and permanent way. The person is born ready for an environment of scarce resources. He will have a system of appetite control that is set to consume whenever food is available because its default setting is an expectation of shortages. Ergo, an obesity epidemic.
Research is published showing the effects of weapons test fallout on people who were exposed in utero in the 1960s. Compared to men born at the same time in the same city, and who are still alive, men who died of cancer in middle age had double the amount of strontium 90 in their baby teeth. Someone had the foresight to collect baby teeth from thousands of people!
Dying from the cure. Health physicists like to play down worries about radiation by repeating the comforting news that radiation is our friend because it cures cancer and helps doctors diagnose diseases. We will have to revise this view as medical science confronts its success and now meets the new dilemma of large numbers of cancer survivors succumbing to totally new cancers caused by previous radiation therapy and chemotherapy (famous case: the type of cancer suffered by writer Nora Ephron). There needs to be a revision of the public misunderstanding that these are harmless therapeutic or diagnostic exposures. This implies also that one cannot suggest that exposure from nuclear disasters is comparable to the “negligible” radiation we get from medical scans and radiotherapy.
This list of milestones shows that there has been a constant gap between knowledge of the non-life sciences and knowledge of the life sciences. For example, when we discuss one of the most serious contemporary health problems, the level of popular and professional ignorance is astounding. Most of the discussion about obesity is senseless moralizing about personal food and lifestyle choices, or discussion of which fad diet might work. Or perhaps large soft drinks should be illegal. It is said to be a disease of the poor because they aren't educated enough to make good food choices, but the poor also live in the most contaminated environments! Decades after the damage has been done, we are starting to figure out that obesity starts in the womb and that the solution lies in environmental decontamination and improvements in pre-natal health.
Listen to Dr. Jules Hirsch, emeritus professor and emeritus physician in chief at Rockefeller University, who has been researching obesity for nearly 60 years. He was interviewed by a reporter and had this simple, blunt advice about losing weight:
What your body does is to sense the amount of energy it has available for emergencies and for daily use. The stored energy is the total amount of adipose tissue in your body. We now know that there are jillions of hormones that are always measuring the amount of fat you have. Your body guides you to eat more or less because of this sensing mechanism.
This wonderful sensing mechanism involves genetics and environmental factors, and it gets set early in life. It is not clear how much of the setting is done before birth and how much is done by food or other influences early in life. There are many possibilities, but we just don’t know.
So for many people, something happened early in life to set their sensing mechanism to demand more fat on their bodies?
What would you tell someone who wanted to lose weight?
I would have them eat a lower-calorie diet. They should eat whatever they normally eat, but eat less. You must carefully measure this. Eat as little as you can get away with, and try to exercise more.
There is no magic diet, or even a moderately preferred diet?
Sixty years of professional wisdom is reduced to eat less, exercise more! But the really important conclusion for public health policy is what Dr. Hirsch alludes to only cryptically. He says “something happened,” but he does not explain what it was. Whatever the “something” is, it is clear that there is a human tendency that needs to be corrected. The general rule is that ignorant and reckless risks are taken in the present while the effects are left to be understood only in the future. This is what has to change.